The greatest mind shift?

This crossed Malcolm’s mind as he jousted on over the fall of Rome.

He began to wonder whether the most profound historical re-appraisal of his life-time was not the vexed question of the “Dark Ages”.

See! We don’t really use the term anymore. It’s not PC in academic circles.

A broken mirror to the past

As Malcolm recalls, in his time at school, the lights went out in the early fifth century and (a few generalisations about “barbarian” invasions later, and a brief interval for Charlemagne) the lights switched on again, about the start of the first millennium.

Groping through the fastness of the night, students were allowed the merest candle glimmers. Typically this might be no more than:

¶ the fiction of Gregory the Great’s Non Angli, see angeli!

¶ the further fiction of Alfred’s Great Saxon Bake-off

¶ the more authentic forensic drama of the Synod of Whitby (that one, less because it settled Easter, but because it was a poke in the eye for the dreaded Irish, and a walk-on part for the occasional woman, as left) …

All of which is thoroughly Anglocentric, as indeed is the name given the “Dark Ages” themselves. Apparently the German scholars have always preferred die Völkerwanderungen — the time of the wandering peoples. Since many of those peripatetics were germanic in origin, that arguably is equally Germanocentric.

Catch ’em young. treat ’em rough

A first day at secondary school inevitably starts with getting a timetable.

Somewhere in those disorienting hours, and new subjects’ names  (which, for Malcolm, also involved Fakenham Grammar’s holly-bush) one heard: Geography is about maps; history is about chaps. The “chaps” who defined early modern history were late classical or Christian authors. The “barbarians” (another loaded term) didn’t leave their written record; and so were always seen through the writings of the good guys.

Some of the gaps between geographical maps and historical chaps amount to archaeology. That is where much of the reconsideration of the “Dark Ages” has stemmed from.

But were there other factors?

As part of that exchange, Malcolm found himself musing on whether one element in the fall of Rome was technological — and social changes that implied. On the whole, history teachers aren’t too good on things technological.

One example came to mind.

Thanks to quadruple-dealing, the Venetians conveyed the Fourth Crusade to Constantinople, committed widespread mayhem, rape and pillage, and brought this bit of porphyry home as a souvenir. They were so proud, they cemented it to the Treasury of St Mark’s. A missing bit is still in Istanbul. It’s not exactly a thing of beauty and a joy for ever. It represents the four Tetrarchs.

Diocletian in AD286 appointed three others to share, under his sway, the management and defence of the Empire:

  • Diocletian himself was based at Nicomedia, modern Izmir, on the Asian frontier;
  • Maximian operated from Mediolanum [Milan] with authority forItalia et Africa;
  • Up on the Danube, at Sirmium, near modern Belgrade, Galerius had oversight of the Danube frontier;
  • While Constantius Chlorus was officer commanding the Rhine frontier at Augustus Treverorum [Trier].

Plum, sputum and glades (not)

Here the tetrarchs are depicted in a spirit of brotherhood (which didn’t last long — so we can accurately date this bit of statuary)  and in full military fig. These guys are wearing state-of-the-art heavy metal, and the swords are spathae.

One of the things Malcolm dimly recalls recall from classical archaeology lectures (Professor Pyle at TCD, alas not doing this with actions) was why Caesar did so well against the Gauls. Vercingetorix and co. came at the Romans with their long slashing swords. Their metallurgy wasn’t up to their ambition. Hence a Gaulish warrior might periodically retreat, leap up and down on his sword to straighten it, and then return to the fray. Meanwhile the Roman legionnaires, with plumscutum and gladii (which the spelling-corrector would wish as “plum, sputum and glades”) just kept doggedly poking their way forward.

If the spatha became the weapon of choice and fashion in the late fourth century, and was the the nearest substitute for a Glock 19 the quartermasters could offer, metal-bashing must have significantly improved. Lest we forget: if the iron sword was improved, so too were other applications for iron — the plough, for an obvious example. Sure enough, the heavy mouldboard plough makes its appearance just around the same time as Tetrarchs are happily presenting their side-arms. That’s technology in social action.

With the spathae there would be improved infantry handbooks, new soldiering — the day of the heavy infantryman has arrived. In due course, equine-management would deliver beasts capable of putting this heavy mob on horseback, and — lo! — we have arrived at the age of the armed knight.

That’s not the complete story of the fall of the Empire by a long shot: as Rory Carr, another sparring partner of Malcolm’s, reminded us:

In 1984, German professor Alexander Demandt collected 210 different theories on why Rome fell, and new theories have emerged since then.

TV lightens the darkness

None of that in any way explains why we have gone through a major academic reconsideration of five centuries. Nor that this has, to some extent, penetrated the public consciousness.

Obviously knowledge has improved. We now enjoy data and analysis from technical equipment that previous generations of archaeologists lacked. And there are many, many more archaeologists in productive employment.

Similarly, on the monkeys/typewriter/Shakespeare analogy, an excess of PhD students will eventually have to consider previously-neglected topics, and may even produce results.

Added to which there are infinite hours of numerous TV channels needing material. A fluffy, scruffy, muddy and bloody archaeologist, preferably with a strong regional accent and eccentricities, in a trench is cheap filming and audience-friendly. Throw in a bit of eye-candy (there’s another relationship which failed the test of time) and you’re making a mark in the ratings.

All the better for it

If the early modern period can be “sexed-up”, so much the better.

It might even have an impact on schools. David Starkey may not be everyone’s (and certainly not Malcolm’s) cup-of-tea but he hits the button:

History, fundamentally, is a branch of storytelling. It is, of course, a very sophisticated branch of storytelling: issues of evidence, issues of critical analysis, issues of debate are very important, but they seem to me to be the scaffolding and the foundations.

There is nothing dry, desiccated, dreary about history. In schools it has to become something more than castles, eight wives, the slave trade, Hitler, Stalin — which, in many cases it has been in recent years. The other problem is that each of those topics, important as each is, comes with value-added. There’s a clear ideological overtone. And all together they do not give any “sweep” to history. Starkey again:

We need big courses, we need ancient history, we need medieval history, we need the history of the dark ages, we need that sense of change and development across time.

Malcolm will take a little milk, no sugar, with that.

And finally, Starkey gets to how, why and what Malcolm reads (that ever-tottering guilt-pile). It is the first of his two powerful justifications for the teaching of history and its place in the National Curriculum (the second is the “celebratory” element — who and what we are and have achieved):

… how can we justify the idea of history at the centre of a national curriculum? There are two ways of doing it. The first is psychological. Memory is central to being human. The most terrible sign of Alzheimer’s is the loss of memory, something uniquely destructive to the personality. We are memory, we are our awareness of ourselves. I would suggest that societies are really very similar. They are collective memory, and a society that loses its collective memory has nothing. Without an awareness of the need for collective memory any notion of community, value or stability vanishes and we become merely individualised flotsam and jetsam. So there is a really powerful argument of this sort to be made for the centrality of history.


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Filed under Britain, culture, Dublin., education, Europe, History, Military, Norfolk, reading, schools, Trinity College Dublin

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